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With All the World Not Watching: Lessons from the People’s Party

26-May-2020Nathan Elwood

Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, and Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh march in the Solidarity Day Parade at the United Nations Building. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We are excited to publish the first article of a larger project of the Political Education Working Group of the Mid-Missouri DSA on the successes and failures of left movements from recent history.

While we do not fully agree with the analysis or some of the arguments of the author, we believe this article will help to familiarize readers with an interesting chapter in the history of previous efforts to build a mass left-wing party in the US and raises important lessons. We will be expanding on this history by posting additional articles on previous attempts to establish a viable left-wing party in the US and the necessity of building toward a democratic socialist party today. Readers are encouraged to send us your thoughts and submissions for publication.

In the realm of popular medicine, Dr. Oz has never in his wildest dreams held a candle to Dr. Benjamin Spock. After all, only one of them ran for president.

Dr. Spock’s book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care has been translated into 39 languages and, from its publication in 1946 to the time of Dr. Spock’s death in 1998, sold more than 50 million copies. It is one of the best selling and most widely read books in history. Time may have named Dr. Mehmet Oz one of its 100 Most Influential People in 2008, but an entire generation of American children came of age as “Spock Babies.”

Also in contrast to Mehmet Oz, Dr. Spock was no snake-oil charlatan. Though his ideas later received pushback from conservative pundits, he was highly regarded in his field throughout his life. His volume became the standard handbook for child-rearing in the US for decades, gently leading new parents in raising their children with the simple advice: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think.”

Few people could be said to have had a greater impact on American life than Dr. Spock, and his book remains in print to this day. But even though your parents may know of Spock’s book, they may not be familiar with the People’s Party, or its ill-fated race for the presidency.

Formed in 1971 from several minor political parties like the Peace and Freedom Party and the Liberty Union, the People’s Party centered itself around opposition to the Vietnam War specifically and American imperialism in general. Its platform also included a host of progressive ideas years ahead of their time, from legalized abortion and marijuana to universal healthcare and a guaranteed basic income for all Americans.

At first glance, the bespectacled Dr. Spock, who wore Brooks Brothers suits as everyday attire, might not have looked like the co-chair of a left-wing coalition made up of anti-war hippies, union tradesmen, and black civil rights activists. A New York Times profile of the campaign made much of his “incongruous figure.”

But, as the article grudgingly noted, his sincerity to the cause was unquestionable. He was committed, above all else, to developing a political movement that would crack the stranglehold held by the country’s two major political parties, which he saw as indebted to corporate monopolies and the powerful rich.

Spock’s approachable populism attracted like-minded individuals from across the broader US left. Spock counted among his allies such voices as Dick Gregory, famed black comedian and Civil Rights activist, and Gore Vidal, one of the most famous US novelists and satirists, who stood alongside Spock as co-chair of the People’s Party.

With such a pedigree of movers and shakers on board, the energy going into the first People’s Party national convention, held in St. Louis in July 1972, must have felt electric. At the convention, much of the debate centered around whether the adolescent political movement should nominate its own candidate for president or stand behind Senator George McGovern, the Democratic candidate. Their greatest fear was that their candidate might pull enough votes from the committed liberal McGovern to ensure a victory for the archconservative Richard Nixon.

In the end, the party determined that it was in their greater interest to pull the political conversation as far to the left as possible and that a famous presidential candidate of their own was the best way to make themselves heard in the raucous American political debate. As Dr. Spock said, “If I knew how to draw attention to this issue any better—by standing on my head, by putting on a costume, whatever—I'd do it…. I honestly don’t expect to be elected president. If I can move 10 percent of the people in an audience that I speak to, I'm satisfied.”

After several days of debate, the roughly 200 delegates at the convention nominated Dr. Benjamin Spock as the Party’s first presidential candidate.

In the election that followed in November, Dr. Spock, whose book sat on countless shelves across the country, received fewer than 80,000 votes, fewer even than Linda Jenness of the Socialist Workers Party, or John Schmitz, an extremely right-wing candidate for the American Independent Party. Rather than the 10-percent showing Spock had hoped for, he received less than 0.1% of the popular vote.

Senator McGovern in turn lost to Nixon in a landslide: 49 states to one.

The 1972 election was a unique disaster for the US left, so much so that it appears as a frequent talking point well into the current presidential primary. The failure of the People’s Party can certainly be partially attributed to this overall collapse. It likely also did not help that Dr. Spock’s running mate, Julius Hobson, may have been a paid FBI informant, according to the Washington Post.

But the complete dismissal of Spock and the People’s Party speaks to an even greater disaster, and a more insidious conspiracy. It is indicative of a concerted effort from the corporate media ecosystem, a sustained and committed opposition to progress that continues to this day.

In a brief 2013 retrospective on the People’s Party Convention, the St. Louis Post Dispatch notes that “national news coverage was scant.” This is an almost hilarious understatement. The reporting from national news outlets was indeed scarce, and what measure of it existed dripped with derision and condescension. A Washington Post commentary described the party as “not a Party of the People, but of damaged goods, secondhand candidates and rejects.” The delegates were portrayed as “straggly, dirty-footed,” and a solo reporter covering the event was chastised for asking the presumptive candidate a policy question, thereby “pretending the People’s Party is like the Democrats or the Republicans.” This same commentary was republished across the country with leering titles like “The People’s Party has no Bark” and “‘People’s Party’ more like a party for dogs.”

Even in their own coverage of the event, the St. Louis Post Dispatch resorted to cheap jeers, opening their first article on the convention with the haughty comment, “With the whole world not watching, the national convention of the People’s Party began today the complicated process of selecting a candidate for the presidency of the United States.”

For pushing back against this treatment, the corporate media cast the People’s Party as petulant children suffering from sour grapes. A Wall Street Journal headline taunted, “On the Sidelines: With McGovern Stealing Their Thunder, Radicals Bitterly Complain They're Being Ignored This Year.”

But for all this condescension, when they weren’t being talked down to, the radicals were being ignored. During the entire election campaign, Dr. Spock only had five television appearances. All five were prompted by equal-time complaints that the campaign made to the Federal Communications Commission.

In a November 1972 ruling against Dr. Spock by the FCC during another bid for fair coverage, a dissenting commissioner documented that in the final weeks leading up the election, neither NBC nor CBS dedicated even a minute of coverage to the People’s Party campaign. Later analysis found that among the three major television networks, total coverage of Spock’s campaign amounted to a single evening’s coverage of Nixon or McGovern’s campaigns.

It is easy to dismiss the lack of coverage for the People’s Party as a simple byproduct of an entrenched two-party system and a competitive media ecosystem. But the most recent presidential primary has demonstrated that the corporate media attitude toward progressives holds true even when those progressives are the standard-bearers for one of the two primary political parties of our country. Joan Walsh in The Nation called out the “erasure” of progressive liberal candidate Elizabeth Warren, briefly the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, who was relegated to less media coverage than even centrist Amy Klobuchar after her third place finish in the Iowa caucus. The “Bernie blackout,” in which democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders received far less coverage from corporate media outlets than the success of his campaign warranted, has in turn been well documented by outlets like Truthout and In These Times.

When Bernie couldn’t be ignored, establishment media turned instead to an avalanche of negative coverage, gross dismissal akin to their attitude toward Dr. Spock in 1972, or even blatant anti-Semitism.

The 1972 Presidential Election and the 2020 Primary have two important lessons for the US left.

The first is that our movements cannot be dependent on famous standard-bearers. As Dr. Spock and Senator Warren show, there is almost no one so famous that they cannot be ignored when necessary to shut out their message. Moreover, organizing our political framework around individuals makes them far too fragile to survive over the long term. The People’s Party was based on a gamble that a famous leader would help draw attention to their broader cause and coalition. Not only was this a failure, but without the leader that the movement had coalesced around, they quickly collapsed.

While the People’s Party ran one other presidential campaign, in 1976, Dr. Spock consented that time to stand in as the vice-presidential running mate only. The party received even fewer votes than in ’72 and, with Spock’s departure shortly after, quickly dissolved entirely.

With the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign, it becomes more important than ever for the US left to focus on our broader political goals, rather than a single politician or campaign, in order to avoid a similar end. Bernie Sanders has elevated our platform, but we must work to continue that momentum at local and national levels, with or without the campaign to rally around.

The second lesson is that the corporate media will never abandon their mission of manufacturing consent for the corporate chokehold Dr. Spock warned of. It is incumbent on the left to develop true media alternatives, and to reach voters through these media.

The explosion of leftist media options over the last few years may give the impression that we already exist in a healthy leftist media ecosystem. Despite their popularity and polish, however, nearly all of these new options—from podcasts like The Michael Brooks Show and internet-only news programs like Rising to magazines like Jacobin—remain niche products in the media landscape.

While an ever-increasing number of Americans get their news from online sources, 57% of Americans still view television as their primary news source. As long as TV remains the near-exclusive domain of conservative and centrist outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, we will continue to be easily shut out of the national conversation.

At present, the left does not have a Fox News. We don’t even have a One America News Network. But there are models that show a potential future.

Means TV, a post-capitalist streaming service, has collected an admirable group of leftist YouTubers, independent documentarians, and podcasters onto one platform. As a cooperatively run platform, it also by its very design avoids the hypocrisy of faux-progressive outlets like the union-busting TYT. However, even with thousands of new subscribers joining since their launch in early March, MeansTV is still only available in a tiny fraction of potential viewers’ homes.

For a possible alternative model, we actually have to look backward to left-liberal stalwart Free Speech TV. While the grungy, unpolished nature of much of its content may scare off many viewers, it is, at the very least, available in some 40 million homes through its inclusion on Dish Network, DirecTV, and live streaming options.

An ideal model would combine the cooperative structure of MeansTV, the reach of FreeSpeechTV, and the MSNBC-adjacent polish of Rising in order to present a genuine alternative not only for viewing in the privacy of people’s homes, but in the lobbies of hospitals and hotels.

Developing an alternative of this scope would not be easy. Nathan Robinson, founder of the magazine Current Affairs, recently made posts on Twitter about both the necessity and difficulty of such a project.

However, if the left wishes to avoid its current resurgence becoming a footnote like Dr. Spock’s coalition, it is necessary that we take the steps to build an alternative to the mainstream in this manner, and the infrastructure to sustain and amplify it.

Nathan Elwood is a librarian and member of the Mid-Missouri DSA Facilitating Committee.